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Finding comfort in stew during the winter


IT IS STEW season -- a time of year when interiors matter, both the interior of my home, where I hole up to avoid the winter weather, and my personal interior, which often gets a going-over on long winter nights.

People have various ways of defining their innermost being, their essence, their intrinsic being. For me, when I think of my inner self, I think of my stomach.

Lately, my innermost being has been craving something warm, something substantial, something that will hold me down when the big winds hit. That something is stew.

It has the right tone. Most stews, like most winter days, are dark. It also has the right aromatics. During a time of year when the windows and doors are shut tight, or at least as tight as sagging wooden frames permit, the prevailing pleasant odors come from inside the house, not outside. It is the stew on the stove, not the budding trees in the garden, that produces the stuff worth smelling.

Stew is also comfort food, a countermeasure against the hostile weather and potent viruses that take their best shots during the short but mean month of February.

Making a worthy stew requires vigilance. You must mind the pot as the stew cooks, making sure the meat simmers gently and becomes tender, rather than cooking quickly and becoming leathery. But again nature cooperates. When the late afternoon is dark and forbidding, spending time in a warm, bright kitchen seems appealing.

The other night when moods in the household were low and fevers were high, I made a stew. I chose between two recipes, one made with pork tenderloin, prunes and seasoned with apple brandy, and the other made with beef bottom round, red potatoes and seasoned with rosemary. I picked the beef because bottom round was on sale at the grocery store.

I used canned beef stock. Some day, I might make my own stock -- simmering meat, bones, vegetables and a pouch of spices in a big pot for an hour. But the other night, I was content to merely open a can and spice the stock with a little extra garlic.

At supper time, members of our clan came to the table. We did not look like a Norman Rockwell painting. We looked embattled. There were coughers and moaners and nappers among us. The stew did not heal every affliction. But it filled us up. It provided an island of solace during a time of rough seas. And thanks to a little extra garlic, it gave us an inner glow.

Beef and Rosemary Stew With Red Potatoes

Serves 4

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 1/2 pounds beef bottom round, cut into 1-inch cubes

1/2 cup dry red wine

1 cup beef stock

10 small red potatoes, unpeeled

2 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves or 2 teaspoons dried rosemary

salt and freshly ground pepper

Warm olive oil in a 4-quart, heavy-bottomed stew pot over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and beef cubes and cook about 3-4 minutes, stirring until the beef is lightly browned and the garlic is golden, but not dark brown.

Pour in the wine and, using a large spoon, deglaze the pot (dissolve glaze formed on bottom) over medium-high heat, stirring to dislodge any browned bits from the pan bottom. Add beef stock and stir well.

Add the potatoes and sprinkle with the rosemary. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer gently until the beef and potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork, 30-45 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve in warmed bowls.

-- From "Stews" (Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Library, Time-Life, 1995)

Pub Date: 02/03/99

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